Reflection in the Midst of Pain


By Peter Burian

Chair, Academic Council, and professor of classical studies

Like so many of us, I am still trying to assimilate the brute facts of the unprecedented and almost unbelievable terror to which the many victims—and all of us—have been subjected. Like many of us, I experienced yesterday in a kind of fog, from which emerge vividly today, first the indelible images of horror, and then the hopes and fears of colleagues and co-workers whose loved ones might have been in or near one of the sites of devastation, and from whom they still had not heard.

One of my colleagues, whose child both lives and works in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, said at a certain point that she was embarrassed to be so preoccupied with one person’s safety in the midst of such overwhelming horror. But how could it not be so? And in this sense, I am afraid, the reality of the losses in our own community is only beginning to be understood. The alumni office, for example, has a list of some fifty Duke graduates whose office addresses are in the World Trade Center, and we already know that there are victims among them.

The true story of this event is the collective story of all the loved ones, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends, co-workers, our students—the collective story of all our hopes and fears. And in sharing our feelings, in the rediscovery and reassertion of community around this terrible event, there is some small comfort. That is why we are here today. I hope we will learn from this suffering—the suffering of an almost unbearable number of victims—and from our own sense of helplessness and despair.

And what I most hope we will learn is that we cannot conquer the demons that beset us until we face and control the age-old division of the world into us and them—the instinct, if that is what it is, to turn a violation of our own humanity such as we have just suffered into a corresponding dehumanization of whole groups, whole peoples whom we too easily identify with those who have violated us. Let us not allow the legitimate need for justice slide into a brute cry for vengeance. Revenge is always meant as an end-point by those who exact it, always felt as a beginning by those on whom it is unleashed.

I would like to share a story that stands out in my memory from the horrible events of yesterday. I am teaching a freshman seminar, and yesterday almost every student was there, many with tear-reddened eyes and clearly shaken by the unfolding terror. Our subject was to have been Sophocles’ Oedipus. It is a story of peripety—the sudden, unexpected reversal of fortune—and a story of self-recognition. The underlying question that the Oedipus raises is how to make meaning out of seemingly uncomprehensible suffering and loss. We did not discuss the Oedipus, but we talked about another sudden, unexpected reversal of fortune that left us grappling for meaning in the midst of incomprehensible suffering and loss. I was taken aback by the maturity and the thoughtfulness of this group of eighteen-year-olds in confronting their feelings and trying to make sense of this tragedy of our own.

Whether there was katharsis, I cannot say. But my students, unlike Oedipus, seemed almost intuitively to grasp that all the questions we were raising were also about us—that our responses will help us recognize who we are and who we want to be. The conclusion we drew is that our sorrow would have to be turned into a basis for action if it were to have real meaning for our lives.

That is also my message for your today. We must not stop here—we must use the strength of our community to do whatever we can to uphold the fundamental human values whose fragility, and whose fundamental importance, the events of the last day have once again, and with terrifying force, made clear to us all.

These remarks were delivered at the interfaith service on the Chapel Quad on September 12—the day after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

By Nannerl O. Keohane
President, Duke University

As many of you know, I was in New York City on Tuesday, September 11. I had flown into La Guardia Airport past lower Manhattan a few minutes before eight in the morning, looking out at the magnificent skyline on a brilliantly clear morning. As I arrived at my midtown destination, I learned of the horrific attack out of that clear sky, and then all the rest that followed. I shared with friends and colleagues the terror of not knowing where family members were, experiencing the shutdown of many essential parts of life, and also seeing firsthand the admirable way in which so many people worked hard to keep some semblance of civilized life, rushing out to help with relief work or give blood.

Early on Wednesday morning, I walked for several blocks down Park Avenue. On the long prospect from 92nd Street for fifty blocks southward, there was not a single car in sight; the “city that never sleeps” had indeed been brought to a halt. I am so deeply grateful to all the people—bus drivers, subway drivers, and the people at Amtrak who left their own families to help the rest of us get home to ours.

Many people at Duke have been supported, succored, and sustained through these dark hours by outreach from others in this community. I want to express most heartfelt thanks to the team of leaders who managed the unprecedented and complicated situation so effectively and sensitively. I also want to thank all those who spoke eloquent words of comfort and healing to the community at the service in front of the Chapel.

In our various classrooms, offices, and residence halls, members of the university community have been trying to sort out their feelings and come to grips with the enormity of this tragedy. As members of an institution dedicated to education, it is very appropriate that people at Duke use this opportunity to inform ourselves about the many complex issues associated with events such as these, what we can learn from history, and how we can focus on supporting each other in the time ahead.

It is crucial that we rededicate ourselves to the fundamental values that define our
university and our way of life: to openness, trust, compassion, and dedication to helping others. Even as our country prepares to respond, as we must and shall, to this frontal assault on our civilization and our values, we must try to avoid hatred and prejudice. If the abdication of our common humanity that led to this horrible attack is allowed to seep into our own lives and minds, then the terrorists will have achieved their diabolic aim.

The loss of life is enormous and tragic. The loss of our easy sense of security and invulnerability in our own country will have incalculable effects. But we cannot lose what this democracy is all about, what some of our citizens, at their best, have exemplified throughout our history. The devastation in lower Manhattan did not touch the Statue of Liberty standing nearby: The torch is still held high in her hand, and this terrible day must not be allowed to stain or erode the principles she embodies for us all.

The president offered these thoughts in a September 13 “memo to the university community.”

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